Betting on PR

Written by Lisa Mattam

When I launched The Mattam Group in August 2005, I was getting the word out about my company’s services using traditional business-development methods, such as sales calls and attending networking events. But the challenge for a service-oriented firm like mine — I provide leadership and diversity training to Union Gas, PepsiCo and Bayer Healthcare, among other corporations — is that it’s hard to reach a large group of potential clients with those methods. You have to rely more on your networks than anything else. I had thought the networking process would be fairly easy. It wasn’t. As time went on, I began to feel nervous and uneasy about the prospect of growing my business.

One day in April 2006, I was discussing my business with a fellow entrepreneur over lunch, and he recommended that I hire a public-relations company. He was sure that it would help accelerate my business. Frankly, I thought he was absolutely crazy. I was sure from my previous life in the pharmaceutical industry that PR was expensive and, in my mind, only for big companies with considerable dollars to invest.

Still, I had a feeling he was right. In a branded world, we take cues from seeing how others look at someone, where that person can be found and who values them. I find myself doing it all the time, particularly when dealing with small businesses. You have to build the brand and instil in potential customers the confidence that you are serious, thoughtful and able to deliver results.

I had already been doing some in-house PR, albeit in an ad hoc way. I had even managed to get on BNN’s Workopolis TV show on my own, which was fantastic. However, it had required writing multiple iterations of my proposal because I didn’t clearly understand what BNN was looking for. I tried a few other ways to get my name out there, such as applying to speak at conferences and writing articles for submission, but I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing. I had no idea where to even start.

At Workopolis TV, I met a PR professional who was representing another interviewee. She explained how PR can indeed be done in-house — but honestly, searching for story lines and sending out effective press releases was a whole new skill to master while simultaneously trying to run and grow my business.

I decided to go ahead and meet with the PR company that my entrepreneur friend had recommended. The agency was an entrepreneurial firm like mine, and while it has some big clients, the executives there were willing to take me on and negotiate their rates. I liked that they took the time to understand what I was trying to accomplish for my business, who I was selling to and how I would measure my success.

Most of what my PR company did for me comprised the writing and distribution of press releases, plus post-release follow up with media outlets, either when there was news I potentially could comment on or when we came up with an idea we thought would be newsworthy. But my PR people also monitored newspapers for studies that I could comment on; helped me apply to conferences as a speaker; and found me opportunities to speak to the media, since that’s something I was already very comfortable doing.

I got results faster than anyone expected. Shortly after I hired my PR firm, a major study on diversity — my area of expertise — was released. My PR team leveraged this opportunity, getting me on TV once and quoted in at least 10 articles that month, including one in the Globe & Mail. Not bad for a company less than a year old. (Had that study not come out, we would have put out releases on topics that were already in the news frequently, such as changing labour markets, diversity, generations and talent management.)

The results? I can’t single out a particular contract that I landed solely due to PR. But I still believe hiring a PR firm was one of the best things I’ve done for my company. Four months into the PR work, I was able to establish a strong partnership with two other companies to launch a diversity webinar series. The PR is what helped me to gain access to these firms and establish credibility with them. When making those sales calls, it wasn’t a fancy marketing brochure I left behind; rather, it was an article in which I had been quoted. There’s nothing better than being able to say to a big potential client: “Here are some articles that reflect the new trends in talent — and you’ll notice my thoughts are scattered throughout them.”

At this point, you’re probably wondering what hiring my PR company cost. It was somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000 for 10 months, which was paid as a retainer. To be honest, I absolutely could not afford it. Nevertheless, I dipped into my line of credit, took a risk and prayed that it would pay off.

What really surprised me about the whole experience was the incredible access public relations companies have. They’re able to get specific journalists on the phone; I wouldn’t even know where to start. Without my PR company, how else would the Globe & Mail have found me? As a bonus, I still get calls from journalists, even though my contract with the PR company is over. The journalists search the Web to research the topic they’re writing about, and find my name in articles that I’ve been quoted in.

PR is not a cure-all, of course. I was occasionally disappointed throughout the process by the randomness of the results. You can have a great month in which you get a lot of calls; then, it can be quiet for a long while. You can use those quiet times to revisit your strategy, making sure that your message or offering is unique, compelling and timely. Although my specialty is diversity, my PR firm once positioned me to talk about office romances around Valentine’s Day. This was a great way for me to be quoted on real issues in the workplace.

I used the PR company in Year 1 of my business. Now that I’m established, have a track record of success and am known for the work I do, I have better access to speaking opportunities, so PR is less critical to the success of my business. But if I were launching a new practice area or product, there’s no question that I would hire a PR firm.

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